Whither push technology?

When it hit the Internet scene just a couple of years ago, push technology was viewed as a rising star that inspired plenty of venture-capital investments and news-page buzz.

Now you're lucky if you can find a company willing to admit it's involved in push technology. Instead, mission statements and corporate position papers show the push companies of old aligning themselves with areas such as knowledge management and automated software delivery.

The original promise of enabling users to subscribe to interesting information channels and then pushing that content to their desktop was enticing. However, people often found the channels unfocused, and too much time and energy was required to find buried information. Additionally, network managers found that the immense flow of data to the desktop was eating up precious bandwidth.

Overall, though, the push concept seemed to wither because it simply became more work for the recipients than originally hoped.

In light of that, many companies have changed their strategies while others have become acquisition bait. For instance, Tibco Software purchased inCommon, and Vantive acquired Wayfarer Communications.

Even Microsoft and Netscape, which still provide integrated "Webcasting" products in their respective client software suites, have generally downplayed the technology. Push channels are still being offered, but not with the same exuberance and motivation as before.

As it is currently used, push has made a subtle but distinct shift. What mostly started as a one-to-many technology is being refocused by the more successful survivors: the funnel of information is narrowing into a one-to-few or few-to-few delivery process. As intranets and extranets have developed, enabling directed Web-based communications to employees, business partners and customers, elements of push make it possible to keep the chosen in touch and keep data fresh.

"Making sure information is updated is important," said Alexis dePlanque, senior research analyst for the Meta Group consultancy. "I was on a sales call where the person's collateral was so out of date it referenced an employee who hadn't been there in two years."

BackWeb Technologies sees the need for up-to-date information as an opportunity. Its Infocenter product, now at version 4.0, enables BackWeb customers to distribute support information and even application patches and revisions. The company was recently signed to provide its software to such companies as Microsoft, Compaq and Computer Associates.

Similarly, Diffusion's Diffusion Server provides for what it terms "customer relationship management," enabling a company to pass information and alerts to selected clients and partners via the Web. Diffusion is releasing Version 3.0 of Diffusion Server this week through reseller partnerships with companies such as Netscape and Hewlett-Packard.

DataChannel has a product called DataChannel RIO, which uses Extensible Markup Language to leverage corporate information stored in a database. The product enables information to be published on the Web without the need for a Webmaster. This "save to the Web" technology provides for drag-and-drop posting of content from Windows applications. At the same time, it provides the tools that manage who can receive the information.

Media darling Marimba originally offered its Castanet software as a way to update Java applets, enabling content providers to support recreational uses such as delivery of daily crossword puzzles. With Castanet Version 3.0, the company has begun to cater more to the software distribution needs of the corporate world.

Perhaps the biggest name in push has been PointCast. While the company has polished its software -- it recently released Version 2.5 and has a beta of Version 2.6 publicly available - the biggest news of late concerns its financial decisions. An initial public stock offering was recently withdrawn, with President and CEO David Dorman stating that PointCast would be better able to pursue strategic partnerships as a private company.

"PointCast's future is at best uncertain," META Group's dePlanque said. "People find [pushed] information is not all that relevant, and it's commoditised by the free information that's available on the Internet."

Push technology hasn't disappeared, but it appears to have morphed into processes for controlling communication - much as the whole Internet has evolved from being a billboard into an interactive and collaborative medium.

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